Ruth and Ken Altshuler were the “must-have” couple for any undertaking, whether it was a social gathering or a major fundraiser. As if their resumes weren’t enough, they were people magnets. She was the grand lady of Dallas philanthropy and community involvement; he was the legendary head of UT Southwestern’s Department of Psychiatry.
Their stories started decades ago for the Dallas hometown girl and the fella who hailed from Paterson, New Jersey. She had lost her first husband in combat during World War II; Ken had served in the Navy in the 1950s after earning his MD in 1952 at the age of 23 and one month. Following the war she remarried, raised a family and nursed her second husband, Charles Sharp, through years of combating Parkinson’s until his death in 1984; Ken taught psychiatric residents and psychoanalytic trainees and, from 1973-1977, was in charge of all undergraduate education in psychiatry at Columbia University’s College of Physicians and Surgeons and had his own family including three children, two of whom would become doctors.
In the meantime, Ruth became renowned for her work as a community leader. Following the assassination of President John F. Kennedy in 1963, she served on the grand jury that indicted Jack Ruby and became one of the city’s leading volunteers, inspiring countless young women.
In 1977 Ken left his position at Columbia to become chairman of the Department of Psychiatry at UT Southwestern Medical Center and take on the challenge of building “an outstanding Department from one that was virtually defunct.” Ken simply “recruited outstanding faculty, raised fifty-two million dollars in departmental endowments, and increased the full-time faculty from five to over one hundred.”
But this achievement was just an inkling of what he had in mind. Realizing the importance of mental health within his new hometown, he championed mental health by establishing the Community Mental Health program in Dallas.
Like Ruth, Ken was a true volunteer, serving on boards both nationally (as a Director of the National Board of Medical Examiners, as President of the National Association of Chairmen of Departments of Psychiatry, and as a Board Member and then President of the American Board of Psychiatry and Neurology) and locally (Turtle Creek Manor, the Human Rights Initiative, Austin Street Shelter, Genesis Women’s Shelter, the Callier Center for Communication Disorders, Gilda’s House and LifeNet).
Following his appointment by Gov. George W. Bush to the Board of the Texas Department of Mental Health and Mental Retardation in 1999, Ken served for five years.
Over the years his dedication and expertise in the field of psychiatry was acknowledged with countless awards and accolades.
It was on December 5, 1987, that Ruth and Ken married. On first impression, they were so different. When Ruth walked into a room, a natural spotlight seemed to shine on her. On the other hand, Ken was known to simply slip into the same room, ease into a chair and have people line up just to tap into his “clear thinking and deep wisdom.” While Ruth was known for her off-the-cuff talks from the podium, Ken would also enjoy just watching Ruth in action — even if he was the brunt of one of her stories.
For instance, at one award presentation for the Callier Center for Communication Disorders, Ruth “admitted that her own grandchildren had held ‘an intervention,’ because no matter what they said, their grandmother would say, ‘What?’ She then reported that in her own household, she and husband Ken constantly exchange, ‘What?’ As Ken choked hearing Ruth tell the group of their personal experience, Ruth admitted that Ken had already gotten a hearing aid and she had ordered one.”
A nearby guest noted that Ken laughed harder than anyone else at the table.
Even after Ruth’s death in 2017 (just one day after their 30th anniversary), Ken stayed committed to Callier’s efforts. When the Joyce and Larry Lacerte family was being honored in 2018, Ken was seen talking with some young people at the pre-lunch private reception in the Dallas Country Club’s Founders’ Room. He later moved to the outdoor patio, taking a chair with Larry. Perhaps it was Ken’s countenance or his gentle manner that made it so easy for Larry to tell about “his life since 2010, when he nearly died from leukemia and his more recent struggles with heart issues …”
Ruth and Ken’s support of the Callier Center stemmed back to Ken’s days at Columbia, where he “became a pioneer in studying mentally ill patients with profound early deafness and creating services for them. His work was made part of the State services for the mentally ill in New York, and was duplicated in several countries overseas.”
With this in mind Ruth and Ken created the Callier Care Fund to “transform the lives of thousands of children and adults with communication disorder who otherwise could not afford services.”
In return, the Center honored them at the first Callier Cares Luncheon in 2012 by naming its annual award the Ruth and Ken Altshuler Callier Care Award, to be given to “those who serve the North Texas community and better lives of patients with communication disorders.”
Callier also named the Callier Center audiology clinical area in Richardson “The Altshuler Wing.”
Learning of Ken’s death on Wednesday, January 6 at the age of 91, Foundation for the Callier Center President Emilynn Wilson and Callier Center Executive Director Dr. Angela Shoup said, “Every time we walk through the beautiful new building, we will think of Ruth and Ken when we see ‘The Altshuler Wing.’ Dr. Altshuler will be dearly missed, but his memory will live on in perpetuity through his honorable service on the Foundation for the Callier Center board and his unforgettable contributions to the Callier family.”
In the days and years to come, Ken’s decades of healing, teaching and mentoring will continue in the programs and people he inspired.